Earlier this year, the pro-life community in southeast Russia celebrated a significant milestone. It was the birth of a baby boy named Denis. What was so important about little Denis? He was the 1,000th baby brought into this world through the assistance of the Adopt-a-Birth program in Vladivostok.
The Adopt-a-Birth program is the brainchild of Fr. Myron Effing, CJD, an American Catholic priest who has served in Vladivostok, Russia since 1992. Through the program, people from all across the globe have helped cover the basic medical expenses of Russian women who have chosen not to abort their children. The costs are minimal—usually between $20 and $30 per birth.
Early Pro-Life Work in Russia
When Fr. Myron and fellow American, Br. Daniel Maurer, CJD (now Fr. Maurer) first arrived in Russia, they knew that pro-life concerns would be among their highest priorities. That year, they translated and published the booklet The Early Church Fathers and Abortion from the American Life League. Since then, they have overseen the creation of Russian-language pro-life newsletters and materials on fetal development; the delivery of high school seminars on chastity, contraception, and abortion; the training of pro-life counselors; and the establishment of a network of pro-life support centers to assist women seeking an alternative to abortion.
Pro-life work is relatively new to Russia, where abortion was legalized in the early 1920s. Today, the country has the highest abortion rate in the world, roughly two abortions to every three live births. The high rate, coupled with the country’s low life expectancy and other factors, is causing Russia’s population to drop by approximately 700,000 to 800,000 people every year. President Vladimir Putin once called the slide “a creeping catastrophe.”
To put it in another context, Russia is geographically about twice the size of the United States, but with less than half its population. And that population is shrinking rapidly.
The imploding population is only part of the story. Only recently in Russia have abortions been linked to women’s poor health and high mortality rates. In April 2005, Vladimir Kulakov, deputy director of the Russian Women’s Health Center in Moscow, reported that abortion-related complications are responsible for 30% of deaths during pregnancy. A spokesman for Russia’s Health Ministry has also pointed out that abortion is a leading cause of infertility. In response to these and other findings, a law was passed in 2010 requiring abortion providers to advertise the serious health risks that abortion poses to women.
The moral issue is much more difficult to address. Thanks to more than 90 years of virtually unrestricted abortions, many Russians do not see that there is a moral problem at all. In a MoscowNews.com article about the situation, one woman makes that point: “What’s a little abortion if it makes [my husband] happy?” And Natasha, a university student, says, “It has never occurred to me or my friends that abortion is immoral.” Clearly, a widespread sense of abortion’s evil and its negative consequences simply does not exist.
A Slow Turnaround
Fortunately, there is evidence that a new paradigm is emerging and that hearts and minds are changing. The Orthodox leadership, the small yet growing Catholic Church, and certain government luminaries are leading the charge. Even Russia’s former first lady, Svetlana Medvedev, has gotten involved. Her Foundation for Social and Cultural Initiatives publishes pro-life materials and organizes exhibits. And every year since 2009, the foundation has held a national week-long campaign called “Give Me Life!”
Various agencies in southeast Russia have noted the Catholics’ pro-life work in the area and have responded favorably. Local hospitals have allowed the pro-life women’s centers to place ultrasound machines in their facilities. The hospital gynecologists and obstetricians then provide their services free to the centers’ clients, while the hospitals get to use the ultrasound machines at no cost. The hospitals have also allowed the centers’ staff to place literature and fetal development displays in their waiting rooms.
Even the government of Primorye State (where Vladivostok is located) has been of assistance. The State Department of Social Services often contacts the pro-life centers to help identify women and families needing help with food, heating costs, and other needs. The Department also helps provide infant formula and baby food to new moms who are the centers’ clients—moms such as Svetlana, who gave birth to little Denis.
Progress on the pro-life front is slow, but it is steady. Fr. Myron already has plans to open a new center in 2013. This one will be on Russian Island, not far from Vladivostok. Its location makes it easily accessible to thousands of university students. Like the other centers, it will offer counseling, pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, vitamins, and help with medical costs through the Adopt-a-Birth program. Fr. Myron is excited about the new center and about training its new employees and volunteers. Perhaps, in time, they will be the ones announcing the delivery of Adopt-a-Birth’s 2,000th baby.